Everyone was very excited when Umberto Eco set the appointment for our interview at his home in Milan. "He lives in a medieval castle!" they told me. In fact, Eco lives in a lovely apartment building across the street from a medieval castle, the monumental Castello Sforzesco. It's exactly the sort of tall tale that Eco, scholar of forgeries, heresies, and mythologies, would appreciate. His essays, which analyze everything from the fuzzy philosophy of fascism to cultural anthropology, from what language Adam spoke to Sam Peckinpah movies, can evoke a curious sense of calm, as if his systematic rationalism were a form of Zen meditation. Things aren't always so well ordered in Eco's fiction, where intricately plotted adventures circle in upon themselves, spinning off fresh complications. His new novel, Baudolino, tells the story of a bumbling but clever peasant boy whose gift for languages and knack for manipulating the truth land him at the side of the emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa) and then eventually on the trail of the utopian kingdom of Prester John, a fantastical earthly paradise rumored to lie beyond the Orient. At the story's opening Baudolino is a leonine sixty˝year˝old with a scar on his face and the bearing of a warrior; he stumbles into the sacking of Constantinople, claiming that he's just killed for the first time to avenge his father's murder. The tale then unfolds backward.

ˇMinna Proctor

 
     
     
 

Minna Proctor: Why don't we start by talking about Baudolino as a "trickster god."

Umberto Eco: When I was an editor in the '60s, we published a book on Jung and the trickster god. I had been fascinated by the idea of this magical clown, and it eventually found its way into my picaresque novel Baudolino. But I must confess it was a superficial idea, because Baudolino grows; he is an intellectual who gets wiser, whereas the trickster remains the same. The idea of the trickster is relevant because at first glance Baudolino is a liarˇand I probably encouraged this view, since it was so easy to explain to journalists. But Baudolino is not a liar. Liars lie about the present and past; he lies about the future. Baudolino's a visionary!

MP: Can you talk about the utopia created in this famously forged letter sent by the fictional Prester John, priest˝king?

UE: I didn't stage the story around Prester John by chance. This is real history; the letter exists, and there are hundreds of variants, all of them definitely fake. But the Prester John letter represented a utopia. The historical function of utopias has been that people have always tried to either realize them or find them. Think of Sir Thomas More's ideal political state or Ponce de Leˇn's fountain of eternal youth. The Portuguese explorers who conquered Africa set out under the spell of Prester John; they wanted to find his kingdom. When they finally found it, it was Ethiopiaˇa Christian kingdom in the center of Africa! "We have found Prester John," they said, and for over a century, they called the emperor of Ethiopia Prester John. But the kingdom wasn't as exciting as the one in the letter, because those poor Abyssinians were completely impoverished. So, they'd found it, they realized it wasn't so interesting, and the myth declined after that.

MP: Are there any utopias now?

UE: If utopia is a place, then we're in a world where there are no more unexplored places. If utopia is something to be realized, the last big utopia was Marxism. But there are small utopias, like Waco. Such communities may be naive, but they develop out of an idea about community. Bin Laden has a utopia; so did Hitler. We can speak of the utopia of many pacifist movements. Universal peace is probably a utopia; it's impossible to attain, but there are people trying to realize this utopia. The antiglobalization movement might be a utopia. There are good ones and bad ones.

MP: You just mentioned some bad ones.

UE: Even when utopias are good, they're dangerous. Thomas More gave us utopia as a model of a perfect society. But if you read his book, it's pure Stalinism. It would be terrible to live in such a society. We are animals, we need religion; even atheists need some form of religious thinkingˇwe need utopias because without them what are you looking for? Every utopia produces potential. In a way, when Francis Fukuyama spoke of the end of history, what he was saying in practical terms was there is no more room for utopias. The Prester John letter was a utopian text; I used it as a tool, or mechanism. It's not chance that Baudolino is a liar, that he makes fakes, and that he lives among fake relics. History is made through invention. Narrative is both an artistic and a political operation. You make truth through the misinterpretation of history for the benefit of your followers.

MP: The utopia that Baudolino does find is modeled on ideas, abstractionsˇit's not modeled on any particular society, is it?

UE: I was always excited by the religious debates in early Christianity, where people were massacring one another over small theological points that no longer have any importance to us. But they were either using the debate for political reasons or modeling their political reasons around these small points. It was typical of the Byzantine church. In the novel, I just laid out all the heresies of the period like a community.

MP: Can you talk about the languages of the different creatures, the totally fantastical species that make up the outskirts of Prester John's kingdom? What about their paternoster?

UE: I wrote a book about the search for the perfect language. I examined all the attempts throughout history to create perfect languages. My paternoster is a combination of real paternosters in several universal languages from the last three or four centuries, including Esperanto, plus, if I remember correctly, a piece from Gulliver's Travels.

MP: There's so much historical play in this book. Are there allegories or references to modern situations, too?

UE: I never have an agenda when I start writing. But things happen. Like with The Name of the Rose, I was exploring the disputes between Botticelli, heretics, and Fra Dolcino. I found many contemporary parallels to this period I was writing aboutˇthe Red Brigades, for example.

MP: Whereas in your nonfiction you speak directly to political and cultural events.

UE: Well, I happen to have a column in L'Espresso magazine, and so when I have to speak about the present, I have a place to do that. Though it's obvious that when you revisit the past, the fact of who you are changes the way you focus details. I'll focus on certain things that are revealing for me. Benedetto Croce said that all historiography is contemporary history. It is impossible to tell the story of the Roman Empire now without paying attention to the elements that help you understand your own situation.

MP: I'm interested in the subject of freedom of speech in Italy at the moment. You've written about freedom of speech in many different ways over the past thirty years, and you have different ways of talking about it.

UE: Imagine a United States where Bush owns the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, CBS, ABC, plus Hollywood, too. Wouldn't this monopolistic concentration concern American citizens? You're upset by the mere fact that Bill Gates runs Windows and Internet Explorer. Well, that's our situation. It must concern people. Obviously, we still have a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech. But there have been rumors that President Berlusconi is trying to position his friends at the newspaper Corriere della Sera. Once Corriere della Sera belongs to Berlusconi, the editors are obviously going to hire writers differently, and you have, objectively speaking, a reduction of the circulation of free ideas.

MP: One of the arguments that came up often in debates over campaign finance reform was that financing a candidate was an expression of free speech. Thus limiting the flow of money was seen as way of choking free speech. How does that fit into or not fit into your construction of free speech?

UE: If free speech is granted in terms of money, obviously a tycoon will have more speech than a person living on the Bowery. We have to remember Orwell's Animal Farm: All pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others.

MP: In the essay "Ur Fascism" you wrote that freedom of speech was freedom from rhetoric.

UE: That came from my childhood under fascism. We were educated with state rhetoric, so at the end of the warˇrather, at the beginning of the partisan governmentˇI remember discovering there was a counter˝rhetoric, a different rhetoric. I realized that my freedom had been reduced by the unified rhetoric of fascism.

MP: You've often emphasized the importance of how we receive information, our standard of analysis and critical reaction. You've even called interpretation a "guerrilla activity." We've come so far in our ability to understand what the media projects I sometimes think we're allˇthe media, people who know about the media, and the media˝feeding, media˝savvy peopleˇengaged in a mutual seduction.

UE: There is circularity in the sense that if you critique advertising, there will always be a publicity man who is able to pick up on your analysis and use it. In order to criticize media, you need other sources of information. For example, in the early twentieth century, Catholics invented the Cineforum. The Church would pin a list up on the doors of churches saying which movies were acceptable and which weren't. But people wouldn't listen. So they made the Cineforumˇwhere you show the movie and then discuss it for two hours. It's a very democratic way of educating people. One received contradictory messages from the church, from the Socialist Party, or from books. Now, in a mass˝media society, worse yet, a mass˝media society where all the media belong to the same party, the risk is a young generation that only receives messages from the media and lacks tools to react. With the Internet, I have no criteria for selecting information. If I do a search for "holy grail," I come up with seventy sites, of which only two are by serious scholars, and the rest are from New Age people repeating fabulous stories, without distinguishing between legend and historical reality. Who tells a young person which site is reliable and which isn't? Filtering is not censorship. Filtering is pronouncing critical judgment. We run the risk of a young society without critical abilities whose only source of information will be the Internet.

MP: There have been some recent best˝selling novels written with open acknowledgment of your influence. What do you think of that?

UE: Well, I don't know. It embarrasses me. Ever since I started writing novels, twenty˝two years ago, I've had difficulty reading contemporary literature. I cannot understand how certain novelists are at the same time literary critics and write criticism of other writers. I find it very embarrassing for myself. If the book is radically different from mine, then, what do I know? If it's similar, then it's competition. If I believe it's worse than mine, I get annoyed; if I suspect that it is better, I get irritated and frustrated. I have the lucidity to understand that I am not a reliable judge of this writing.

MP: In one of your Norton lectures you talked about slowing down and speeding up narrative, and you cited a long section on the history of the bravos at the beginning of Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (I promessi sposi). You said that you didn't expect anyone to read this and that neither did Manzoni.

UE: It makes sense. When you go visit the Uffizi museum, you don't linger in every room to see everything; you probably look at something, then you go directly to Botticelli. But it's very important that the rest is there, because it gives you the impression of context. The second time, maybe, you stop where you didn't before. The second time, I read the part about the bravos. It seems to me a way of obliging the reader to understand that there is something thereˇfor the moment I put it into brackets, but there is something.

MP: Do you do that? Do you write sections you don't expect people to read?

UE: Yes. Think of the penultimate chapter of Ulysses, in which Joyce just describes Bloom's entire kitchen, every drawer. Sometimes I happen to go back and read a drawer. The first time I read it, what was impressive and important was this ideal of describing everythingˇeverything!

MP: You've talked a lot and easily about your process, how you come to a story, what inspires you. If one studies your books and interviews you give enough answers about your work so as to make more interviews almost gratuitous.

UE: Yes. Although, you may not realize it, I really don't speak about my book. I speak of marginal questions. I don't tell you what the real meaning of my book is. I tell you a lot of peripheral stories about the animals in the Middle Ages, about everything that is external to my book. I mentioned to you that in early interviews I claimed Baudolino was a liar. I didn't believe it, but it was easy to give interviewers this piece of meat to chew on. One is not always sincere.

 
     
     
     
  Minna Proctor translated Federigo Tozzi's short˝story collection Love in Vain (New Directions, 2001). She is currently translating Antonio Tabucchi's new story collection Before It Gets Too Late.  
     
 
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